Mandela calls on Ulster to reach a deal

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The Independent Online
PRESIDENT NELSON Mandela yesterday telephoned Belfast to express solidarity with the politicians - British, Irish nationalist and Ulster Unionist - who are engaged in a last-ditch attempt to break the deadlock in the peace process.

The manifestation of international goodwill came as Tony Blair and the Irish Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, arrived in Belfast to join local politicians who were already immersed in a heavy schedule of meetings.

These included two encounters between the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Fein, who are regarded as the key elements in finding a way through the decommissioning impasse. Today is expected to bring an even more intensive round of talks.

With no clear formula yet in sight to solve the conundrum, opinion remains divided on the outcome of the talks. Many of yesterday's meetings were said to have had a positive tone, though in public the protagonists were unprepared to budge from their familiar positions.

Sources close to the negotiations say that if an accommodation is reached, it will probably happen on the basis of an agreed package consisting of a number of elements. Central among these is the concept of mutual guarantees being swopped between the loyalists and republicans, with a clear choreography of steps to be undertaken in the coming months.

These could be witnessedand underwritten by the British and Irish governments, the US and by David Trimble's deputy as first minister designate, Seamus Mallon of the SDLP.

The IRA would be expected to provide a statement pledging commitment to the peace process and conveying a sense that it regards armed conflict as a thing of the past.

Another element in the equation may be a document, which is due to be published by the Government, on the "normalisation" of security force activity. Some sources suggest this may go further than expressing the hope that various army bases would be closed if the major ceasefires hold.

Absolutely none of this is settled and all of it is dependent on a willingness by both sides to move from their stated positions.

The Rev Ian Paisley continued to predict that David Trimble would shift his position. Accusing him of "being in the pocket of Tony Blair", he claimed the Ulster Unionist leader would accept any form of words on IRA arms that was acceptable to the British Prime Minister. He declared: "What we are saying is - come clean, Mr Trimble. What are you going to accept in order to allow Sinn Fein into government?"

Mr Trimble's party, meanwhile, continued to insist on decommissioning. A statement said: "We are acutely aware that there are many people out there hurting as a result of prisoner releases. Well over half the prisoners have been released and still not a single bullet or ounce of Semtex has been handed over.

"We believe that the paramilitaries have failed to realise the extent of public feeling over this matter and they have totally failed to respond."